Staying Ahead as China Advances
By Dave Majumdar, posted at 11:55 a.m. EST
The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer is concerned that cuts to the Defense Department’s research and development budgets will erode the United States’ technological edge over a fast-rising China.
“I do not want to live in a world in which the U.S. is the second-best power in the world militarily, from the point of view of technology,” said Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisitions, technology and logistics, at the AIAA’s SciTech 2014 conference on Jan. 15. “I do not want to live in a world where we’re even at parity – I want us to continue to have an unfair advantage.”
Since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. has relied upon its technological superiority to maintain its military dominance over the globe. However, since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has become complacent, said Kendall. In fact, many senior people in Washington have come to assume that the U.S. will always maintain its technological dominance, he said.
However, Russia and especially China are making rapid progress in their technological development, said Kendall. Based on intelligence reports he has seen, he said that he could see a day when the U.S. may not be the most technologically dominant military power. “I can see that changing,” Kendall said. “Complacency is a problem.”
China is making rapid advancements in military technology that are aimed directly at blunting U.S. military advantages. “China is modernizing in a very strategic and focused way that directly challenges our capabilities,” Kendall said.
China is developing the means to control access to space, new missiles that can attack targets on land and at sea, and new capabilities in advanced air-to-air and electronic warfare, Kendall said.
While the U.S. continues to develop its capabilities, research and development funding has been cut and will dwindle further in the coming years, said Kendall. The research and development cuts are particularly problematic because they cannot be recouped over time the way production and training can, he said.
One potential solution that would help advance U.S. capabilities in the current fiscal climate is prototyping, Kendall said. The U.S. faced a similar budget drawdown immediately following the Vietnam war, but the Pentagon – though it could not afford new systems at the time – invested in technologies that would result in advanced hardware that was bought during the 1980s, such as the Abrams main battle tank and F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter.
Similarly, Kendall said that the U.S. preserved its technological edge during the 1990s by developing and building small numbers of Seawolf submarines and F-22 Raptor stealth fighters – which helped preserve engineering design talent and retain experienced personnel. Something similar could provide a solution to the Pentagon’s current research and development situation, said Kendall.
He said contractors should be given credit for developing systems that perform better than specifications during a procurement competition. But the extra credit should be based on how much that additional capability is worth compared to the minimum requirements. Basing procurements solely on lowest price, technically compliant bids deprives the Pentagon of some of the best technologies available, Kendall said. He cited the specific case of the AIM-9X, where the technically superior bid was rejected despite marginal price differences.
On travel policy
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials, engineers and scientists will be allowed to attend conferences, Kendall said. But, he cautioned, “be judicious;” it is “appropriate to cut back a bit;” nonetheless, “it is appropriate to have conferences,” he said.
The cutbacks on travel during 2013 were the result of a government-wide financial crisis due to sequestration, Kendall said.
(Image: Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, delivers keynote address at AIAA SciTech 2014 on Wednesday, 15 January 2014)